Thursday, October 13, 2016

An Immigrant Family's Story: The Steamship "Bavaria" and "Between Decks" Passage (Part 5)

In Hamburg on June 14th, 1859, Joachim and Henrietta (Bingher) Peters, my third great grandparents, boarded the steamship Bavaria to start a new life in America. Traveling third class, or “between decks,” they brought with them their six children: Louise (14), Eckard (13), Carl (10), Wilhelm (7), Heinrick (6), and Friedhen or "Freda" (4).

The Ship

According to The Ships List, the Bavaria was built in 1856 as the Petropolis and was a 2,405 gross ton ship. She was 282.1 ft long and had a 39.4 ft beam, which I understand means she was 39.4 feet across at her widest point. She was a "clipper steam" with "one funnel, three masts (rigged for sail), iron construction, single screw and a speed of 10 knots." According to Wikipedia, a clipper “was a very fast sailing ship of the middle third of the 19th century,” while a steam clipper “had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind.” 

Silhouette of the Bavaria created by Jon R Stewart

When the Peters family boarded the Bavaria, she was part of the Hamburg-American Line. She was designed to hold many more passengers than she carried on that trip. Although she was designed to carry 310 third class, or "between decks" passengers, she was only carrying 257. The cabin passengers were even less filled with the second class carrying only 42 of a possible 136 passengers, and the first class carrying only 7 of a possible 50 passengers.

Between Decks (aka 'Tween Decks, Third Class Passage, or Steerage)

Image from Illustrated London News, May 10, 1851, seen on Smithsonian site with credits to the Mariners' Museum

Although nothing specific has been found about the conditions the Peters family faces on board the Bavaria, the Smithsonian's American History website has an “On the Water” page which describes travel during the 19th century: "Most [immigrants] crossed in the steerage area, below decks. Conditions varied from ship to ship, but steerage was normally crowded, dark, and damp. Limited sanitation and stormy seas often combined to make it dirty and foul-smelling, too. Rats, insects, and disease were common problems." The site goes on to say, "Rich or poor, many travelers alternated between anxiety and boredom on long ocean crossings, depending on the weather."

Another section of the "On the Water" site describes the conditions in steerage in more detail: "Steerage passengers slept, ate, and socialized in the same spaces. They brought their own bedding. Although food was provided, passengers had to cook it themselves. On rough crossings, steerage passengers often had little time in the fresh air on the upper deck. If passengers didn’t fill steerage, the space often held cargo." From the previously discussed New York Times article, we know that the Bavaria was carrying merchandise. 

Burned at Sea

As told in the following two newspaper accounts, the Bavaria departed New Orleans for Liverpool in early 1877. Along with her crew and passengers, she was also carrying cotton, seed cotton, and barrels of resin valued at half a million dollars.

Sadly, on February 6th, 1877, amidst a heavy sea and a northeast gale, she caught fire "fore and aft." The passengers and crew boarded the ship's boats and were saved by the bark Dorothy Thompson. Nineteen hours later, the survivors were back on dry land at Beaufort, South Carolina. No lives were lost, but the Bavaria and her half a million dollars of cargo were burned at sea.

Perils of the Sea, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, 11 February 1877, page 4, column 5, 
digital image, ( : accessed 10 October 2016).
Burned at Sea, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, 11 February 1877, page 4, column 6, 
digital image, ( : accessed 10 October 2016).


  1. This is incredible. I have to keep this in mind when I review my German immigrants who traveled just a few years before. Too bad yours and I South Carolina. Mine went to Ohio. I would live to have an 'On the Water' book that talked about from the landing to the Ohio homestead. Do you know of any?

    1. Devon, thanks for your commments. Did you mean your family went to South Carolina? Mine did go to Ohio and later to Kansas.

      I have been researching trying to figure out how my family traveled from NYC to Ohio, but haven't found anything solid yet. I have several German immigrant families who ended up in Ohio, so I know there must be more information out there. I'm still searching!


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